Caine prize 2011: Celebrating a dark Africa

by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim on FaceBook

The shortlist for the 2011 Caine Prize was announced recently. As in previous years, there seems to be a focus on dark stories coming out of the ‘dark continent’.

Monday May 9th, the Caine Prize judges made public the shortlist for the 12th Caine Prize for African Writing to be awarded in July in London.
For the second time in as many years, there is no Nigerian on the shortlist. This, coming on the heels of EC Osondu’s 2009 triumph will be something of a disappointment for a country that has made such an impact on the prize. South Africa has two writers on the shortlist of five, while the other three are from Zimbabwe, Uganda and Botswana.
Since the prize was first awarded in 2000, it has emerged as one of the biggest literary prizes on the continent with a grand prize of £10,000. It has been dubbed “the African Booker” and has shot winners to international limelight. Nigerian Helon Habila owes much of his fame to winning the prize in 2001.
Announcing the shortlist on Monday, the Chair of judges and award winning Libyan novelist Hisham Matar said they had to make a choice of five that “excel in quality and ambition” out of the 126 entries received from 17 countries.
“Together they represent a portrait of today’s African short story: its wit and intelligence, its concerns and preoccupations,” he said.
But what are the preoccupations of these five stories that represent the finest of short fictions coming out of Africa last year?
The themes range from marital infidelity, extreme poverty, war, and violent crimes, incest among other things. In truth these stories explore the darkest side of the “dark continent”, and not for the first time.
Dark Continent, dark stories
There is no denying the quality of this year’s shortlist. The stories are finely crafted and the handling of the issues is well done from uncommon perspectives.
When in 2010, renowned writer Elechi Amadi, speaking at the JP Clarke Colloquium in Lagos hit out at foreign prizes for African literature, he struck a nerve.
“In my view, foreign prizes come with a price because foreigners can’t appreciate African writers unless they share the same mindset with them,” he said.
Whether this applies to the Caine Prize is something different because the judges are usually Africans themselves. Apart from Matar, there is also British/Sierra Leonean novelist Aminata Forna, and Ellah Allfrey among others.
But what kind of stories made the shortlist and what exactly do they say about African literature?
The famous five
First on the list is Zimbabwean Noviolet Bulawayo’s “Hitting Budapest” an evocative story about poverty and want. Brilliantly told, the story focuses on a group of children living in an impoverished “Paradise” who go to steal food from streets named SADC, IMF and AU in a neighbourhood called “Budapest.”
Told through the voice of nine year-old “Darling” and her friends, Bastard, Stina and a ten year-old Chipo, who is impregnated by her grandfather, the story vividly depicts how this group would steal from the dead for a loaf of bread.
Impoverished glue-sucking, stick fighting African children living on a dump won the prize for Sierra Leonean Olufemi Terry last year (Stick Fighting Days). And Nigeria’s EC Osondu’s famished refugee children dreaming of life in America won him the prize in 2009 for “Waiting”.
If Bulawayo wins, and she just might, would it mean that the Caine revels in the images of hungry, homeless children who have become the common image associated with the continent?
Next on the list is Ugandan Beatrice Lamwaka with “Butterfly Dreams” a haunting second person narrative about Uganda’s war children. Lamunu was kidnapped at 11 and returned home at 15 with deep mental scars. The story focuses on how she relates with her family on her return.
Haunting and poignant, “Butterfly Dreams” is a dark story of an Africa of refugee camps, abused children, hunger and ruptured dreams. In a way, it reminds one yet again of Osondu’s “Waiting”.
“What Molly Knew” by South African Tim Keegan explores murder and strained family ties. When Sarah is shot dead in her kitchen, her estranged mother, Molly, concludes that it must be her husband. In the course of the story, Molly’s edgy relationship with her daughter and abusive husband (Sarah’s stepfather) unfolds. But when Molly finds crucial evidence revealing the identity of the murderer, she has a perplexing way of dealing with the truth.
To say that South Africa is infamous for its high crime rates and racial fault lines is an understatement. Keegan explores this, much as her compatriot Ken Barris did in “The Life of Worm”, which also made last year’s shortlist. Barris’s story focused on a man preoccupied with keeping out criminals from his house.
From Botswana, however, comes a refreshing departure from the gloom. Lauri Kubuitsile’s “In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata” is a humorous account of how the husbands and wives of Nokonyana discover conjugal bliss in the wake of the death of the village philanderer, McPhineas Lata.
Thoroughly enjoyable and told in a breezy style, the story begins with the burial of Lata, who the men are anxious to see gone while the women mourn. These women would tussle longingly over Lata’s grave, leaving the men alone to figure out the secret of how Lata pleased their wives in bed.
Pessimists would however see it replete with matrimonial indiscretion, uneducated and really dumb men and of course too generous and superstitious women.
Matrimonial indiscretion also features prominently in David Medalie’s “The Mistress Dog” the fifth on the shortlist. The South African writes of a woman who endures her husband’s decade-long infidelity and ends up living with the mistress’s dog.
And this Africa
Is the Caine Prize stereotyping Africa as a place of war, crime, incest, violence, and the likes? Or is this the real Africa? Are African writers selling their souls to the devil, as they say, for the prize or is this just the Africa they live in?
There is no denying that the slices of Africa captured in this shortlist and in previous years’ exist – the crimes and wars and poverty are real – but that is certainly not all there is to this continent.
This is not to say that there is a determined attempt to constantly darken Africa in the eyes of the world. After all, the writers and most of the judges are Africans. Other great writers all over the world have depicted life as they know it in their own corners of the world, garnished with all the gory details. Take for instance Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel for giving the world vivid accounts of the notorious Soviet gulags, or Charles Dickens, who explored the evils of industrialization in an imperial England. Even Indian diplomat and novelist Vikas Swarup wrote about extreme penury in a booming subcontinent.
This year, the shortlisted writers will be reading from their works at the Royal Over-Seas League on Friday, 8 July at 7pm and at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre, on Sunday, 10 July at 7pm. Apart from the prize money, the winner will be given the opportunity of taking up a month’s residence at Georgetown University, Washington DC, as a ‘Caine Prize/Georgetown University Writer-in-Residence.’
No matter what one may think, it has to be agreed that the Caine Prize is doing great things for African literature, but what is it doing for the way Africans see Africa?

The shortlist
NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) ‘Hitting Budapest’ from ‘The Boston Review’ Vol 35, no. 6 – Nov/Dec 2010
Beatrice Lamwaka (Uganda) ‘Butterfly dreams’ from ‘Butterfly Dreams and Other New Short Stories from Uganda’ published by Critical, Cultural and Communications Press, Nottingham, 2010
Tim Keegan (South Africa) ‘What Molly Knew’ from ‘Bad Company’ published by Pan Macmillan SA, 2008
Lauri Kubuitsile (Botswana) ‘In the spirit of McPhineas Lata’ from ‘The Bed Book of Short Stories’ published by Modjaji Books, SA, 2010
David Medalie (South Africa) ‘The Mistress’s Dog’ from ‘The Mistress’s Dog: Short stories 1996-2010’ published by Picador Africa, 2010

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